Lessons from a decade of ‘doing’ chemistry education

It’s been 10 years since “Developing practical chemistry skills by means of student-driven problem based learning mini-projects” was published in Chemistry Education Research and Practice, and it marked the kick-starting of an accidental career invested in chemistry education. This paper was published with two colleagues and friends, Claire Mc Donnell and Christine O’Connor, who inducted me into the ways of all things chem-ed. We would continue to work together; Claire and I guest-edited a special issue of CERP on technology in chemistry education in 2013, writing an editorial that is surprisingly cited quite often (for an editorial – I think it is because we say… something). And Christine and I wrote a book-chapter for the 2015 Wiley book on Chemistry Education, which in full respect to the editors, has quite a list of names assembled as authors. But wait: this is not an article about how great Seery is (that’s the next one, and the one before).

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Can I say anything sensible about making this a profession? I’m often asked by people who are interested in teaching and learning and education-focussed careers what kinds of things they should think about to achieve this. I don’t know if I am qualified to answer that as much of what has happened was unplanned, fostered by a benevolent, and often indifferent department, working in a REFless, TEFless culture. Moving to Edinburgh has meant that this is now my ‘proper job’ rather than a hobby, but I wouldn’t call the transition or the journey a career path. So much of what follows is what I would advise, considering the REFful, TEFful culture we now live in. With that caveat, here are the top tips…

1. Separate the inner scholar from the teacher

One of the biggest difficulties for someone invested in teaching and learning chemistry is that all aspects of teaching and learning chemistry are probably of some interest. I remember going to conferences and wanting to see everything and #ohmygodthatssocoolwemusttrythat and being overwhelmed very quickly, because of course you don’t have time to try everything. You will not have time to think about everything at once, so my headline piece of advice is to identify what it is you will focus on; what will become your niche. You as a teacher will need to think about labs and lectures and tutorials and online marking and placement and professional development and…

But what will you as a scholar focus on? What is going to be the topic you will be able to have an intellectual basis in? Name it and begin to be strict with yourself about focussing on it. I see a lot of people who don’t produce any outputs even though they are doing good work because they are trying to do too many things.

Imagine an organic chemist. They of course know about most aspects of ongoing organic chemistry generally – they could teach any 2nd year course, but they specialise in their research on one or two particular aspects.

2. Read

If you are going to be scholarly about something, then you must read. I find it very surprising how little people read, or worse, how people cherry-pick some literature. Reading is important if we are going to move on from “gut feeling” or “in my experience” that drags down our academic standing. It is impossible to read everything, but that doesn’t mean you don’t read anything, and certainly doesn’t mean you rely on 140 character summaries as your academic insight. Twitter is amazing for pointing out unusual highlights and what other people who you respect consider important; and I have discovered countless gems that way. But you must be more systematic. This involves identifying a series of journals that you think are of interest and keeping up to date with what is published. If getting into a new area, it involves surveying the literature (hopefully finding a review!), finding out who the key players are. Reading also helps develop a kind of cultural capital – how do people go about things in this field; what are the acceptable norms? What the hell does being ethical mean?

How do you read? The challenge of reading 1000 papers might be a bit daunting. So of course you don’t need to read every line (except mine, for those: read every, single, line), but rather you are reading with a purpose. Perhaps you are making notes on how people implemented online quizzes in their courses. It doesn’t really matter if someone in University of West Nowhere scores went from 45.6% to 52.1%; what matters in this initial survey is what was their rationale and context, how did they go about it, how did they measure, what limitations did they state, and who did they cite to be of influence. You can very quickly build up a map of studies so that you now have a basis for designing your study on exploring how online quizzes; you can state what other people have done, give a rationale for your approach, and compare your results to others. Too often, this analysis is done post hoc. This is not a scholarly approach.

Reading also involves becoming familiar with learning theories. Again, just reading lots of learning theories is a passive way to approach this. Everybody is a constructivist because everybody is a constructivist. But what does that even mean? I thought you liked cognitivism too? How do you marry those thoughts?

3. Generate outputs

Many people do identify an area and do read, but never “get around” to publishing. This is tragic, because it means everyone has benefited from their scholarship except them. Developing outputs; at the very least conference presentations; is the only way the world (and also promotion and interview panels) know something exists. Everyone is a great teacher, everyone can quote some line of good feedback; don’t get that confused with the work of a scholar – producing some output to share with the world that is the result of academic work. The obvious output is a journal publication, but what if you made artefacts as part of some study – can you publish them online – maybe even have a link on the department website. Especially for those new to the field, this will be a useful indicator to show that you have demonstrated interest and will be a useful talking point at interviews.

One of the difficulties people find with writing outputs is that they don’t know how to write. They had a great idea, they got some nice results, and now they’ve got to make it look academic, which involves finding some references that look appropriate (See reading, above). Of course this is not the way to go about things. Our organic chemist does not just go into the lab one day and mix some things, happen across an interesting result, and then think about finding some sensible rationale as to why those chemicals were mixed. And it is unlikely that our educator was similarly flippant – there is likely some rationale in there but it makes life so much easier if the reading was done in advance to give that rationale some basis.

In my own experience, I cannot understate the value of keeping a blog has been to develop writing (yes I know this one is a long waffle). When you write something, you learn to think of how to present arguments, write a narrative, and in cases of academic blogging, have to have read something before writing about it. They say you don’t understand something until you teach it; trust me: you don’t understand something until you blog about it and expose your thoughts to the world. The world, in return, is usually grateful for you sharing those thoughts. And it all ends up being an accidental output.

4. Make friends

It’s nice to discuss your work and have support. One of the best things I had was the support of my original two co-authors. Claire and I went on to formalise this in a study we subsequently did and developed a critical friendship – one that was grounded in the knowledge that we both wanted what was best for each other, but not afraid to call the other up when something was awry about some aspect of the work or a conclusion. It was fantastic, not only for the actual conversations, but for the imagined ones too; I would wonder what Claire would think about something even before I would talk to her. This isn’t easy to find but worth seeking out. At the very least, connecting with others at conferences – yes we would all rather stand facing a corner and check our phone occasionally but come on now everyone, turn around. Talk. Introduce yourself. I was taken aback recently when someone I had always been afraid to talk to came up and introduced. We had a great chat and ended up with a group hug (it’s the way I roll). The point is, people go to these things because we have a common interest. Very often, there is someone else in the department who is interested in teaching. Talk with them (not at them).

One key aspect of making friends is the ability to listen. One thing that is slightly grating (to me) is that people will listen to you long enough to find out about how they can link onto something you are saying to something that they have done that is much better. This is not a way to learn about people and how they do things. Use your blog to show off. A better approach might be to think about how what the thing the person is talking about and what your own experiences are might marry into a useful collaboration? You’re a constructivist aren’t you?

In terms of making friends in the UK, the annual VICE conference is a good place to start. Registration deadline for this year is imminent (www.vicephec2017.com).

 

 

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